As Tolstoy might have written, history is cyclical, but outcomes can be different each in their own way.
More than 120 years since a band of committed revolutionaries gathered in Brussels to forge a political program aimed at toppling the Romanov dynasty in Russia, a similar, yet distinctive conclave of political outcasts convened in Berlin, hoping to catalyze a movement to topple a different type of Russian autocrat, Vladimir Putin.
The first congress of “foreign agents,” held February 2-3 in the German capital, brought together 130 individuals each branded by the current Russian government as being tools of foreign influence. “We are together [here] because the Chekists hate us,” veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev told the gathering.
Like their Marxist predecessors in 1903, the assembled foreign agents in Berlin engaged in messy, meandering debates on a variety of issues, aiming to develop a coordinated action plan to bring about political change in Russia. In the end, the congress adopted a declaration outlining two strategic aims: ending the war in Ukraine and dismantling Putin’s smothering political system.
“Power in Russia has been usurped by a corrupt regime led by a man who long ago lost his legitimacy. … Putin’s regime is depriving the country of its future. He's depriving her of her past: officially approved lies about the country's history permeate everything,” the declaration read. “We strive to protect the real interests of Russia, not those invented by Putin.”
Beyond expressing the lofty desire of bringing rule-of-law and peace to their homeland, the foreign agents’ declaration contained little about practical steps to achieve their goals. Participants couldn’t agree on the creation of a mechanism to implement their agenda. Indeed, it often appeared they weren’t on the same page, in terms of the congress’ significance and participants’ role in trying to influence Russia’s political course.
Some clearly saw the congress as a launch pad for a coordinated opposition movement.
“We are the main legitimate alternative to Vladimir Putin,” political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky said in a video message to the Berlin gathering.
Others seemed to feel the congress’ prospects were limited from the outset, and its most valuable purpose was serving as a mutual support group. “I don’t know whether its creation is planned here or not, but communication between people is a good story. We are very scattered, and this greatly hinders joint actions,” said Bogdan Litvin, a coordinator of the Spring movement.
Many participants said they had little input into the wording of the final declaration, which was drafted by a small group of congress organizers. A dispute over the drafting process flared up when the document came up for approval. The vote was postponed for an hour to allow for cursory debate.
While divided on many fine points, participants in Berlin were generally unified in their desire to see Russia develop a tolerant, accountable, rules-based and peaceful system of government. In this respect, the Berlin congress’ debates differed markedly from those at the 2nd RSDLP congress in 1903.
The odds of toppling an entrenched autocratic order in Russia today via democratic means are perhaps longer than those faced by Lenin and his Bolshie co-conspirators back in the early 20th century. If foreign agents are to emerge as a political force, much less influence Russia’s political future, first they will have to set aside squabbles about inconsequential matters and focus on the big picture.
At one point during the Berlin proceedings, artist Yulia Tsvetkova complained via video link about the venue chosen for the gathering. “I think it’s very cynical to gather in an expensive hotel at a time when there is war, hunger, and people are losing their lives and the meaning of life,” she said.
“She hasn’t seen expensive hotels,” shot back Evgeny Chichvarkin, a millionaire entrepreneur who gained foreign agent status in 2022.
Vitaly Bovar is a freelance reporter and rights activist. He was labeled a foreign agent by the Russian government in 2023 and attended the Berlin congress.